How a Top Foundation is Betting Big on Prison Education and Reentry

Michael Mong/shutterstock

Michael Mong/shutterstock

If you need further evidence that funders have coalesced around the idea that education is a fourth pillar—along with employment, housing and transportation—for enabling former inmates to successfully reenter society, check out this new round of grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The New York-based funder is giving $3.3 million to support four prison education and reentry programs nationwide.

The size of this commitment isn’t so surprising for Mellon, which has assets of more than $6 billion and gives out nearly $300 million every year. But it’s a lot of money for the reentry space, a niche that’s been seeing a lot of funding action lately amid a larger drive by philanthropy for criminal justice reform.

Mellon’s announcement comes on the heels of a study released last month by the RAND Corporation and RTI International that examined the Vera Institute for Justice’s Pathways program, which helps low-risk offenders access postsecondary educational opportunities begun behind bars by offering a series of supports to encourage released inmates to continue their education upon release from custody.

Prison Education as a “Public Good”

Mellon hopes this round of grants will further support prison education and reentry, helping to ease the transition from incarceration to society, reducing recidivism and the costs—both human and financial—associated with mass incarceration. The funder also sees prison education as an element in reducing violence behind bars and disrupting cross-generational poverty.

“Mass incarceration is linked to mass undereducation, but innovative, proven interventions can address both crises,” said Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander in a release announcing the grants. “The Mellon Foundation believes in each and every student’s humanity, and sees expanding access to higher education in prison as a public good.” 

Funding from Mellon will support the following prison education projects:

  • The John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York. The school’s Prisoner Reentry Institute offers credit-bearing courses for inmates at the Otisville Federal Correctional Institute in upstate New York who are eligible for release within five years. The Prison to College Pipeline Program (P2CP) at John Jay has been a favorite among prominent funders, including the David Rockefeller Fund, Ford Foundation, Teagle Foundation, and J.M. Kaplan Fund.

  • Marymount Manhattan College. Marymount supports associate and bachelor’s degree programs at the Bedford Hills women’s correctional facility. Grant funding from Mellon also will support the program’s expansion to the Taconic Correctional Facility, another women’s prison in New York state. About 200 incarcerated women enroll in MMC’s program each year.

  • California State University, Los Angeles. The Golden State’s only university to offer a bachelor’s degree program for incarcerated students, CSU-Los Angeles offers its program at the Lancaster state prison in Los Angeles County. In addition to its prison education program, CSU-Los Angeles assists released inmates in its program to continue their education at the university’s main campus through academic and support services.

  • Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. Headquartered in St. Louis, the alliance is a national network that supports the expansion of higher education in prison and which counts the Lumina Foundation among its other backers. Mellon funding will support the alliance’s efforts to gather and analyze data, as well as share research, training and best practices.

A Key Funder of Prison Education

With this new round of grants, Mellon is making a big commitment to prison education as a part of successful reentry, but the funder is by no means a new player in this space. Prison education and reentry have been part of its grantmaking portfolio since 2015. Since then, the funder estimates that it has given nearly $18 million to a dozen organizations and programs. Past recipients of Mellon support include the Cornell Prison Education Program, the Justice in Education initiative at Columbia University, and the Vera Institute for Justice.

Despite the growing popularity of postsecondary education programs behind bars, significant obstacles to such programs remain. These include lack of funding, limited access to technology (most prisons do not allow even restricted internet access); limited availability of qualified instructors, as many prisons are in rural, geographically isolated areas; disruptions to education caused by prisoner transfers, ensuring the quality of education programs, and making sure credits earned behind bars are transferable.

Another root barrier may be the overall tension between the concept of punishment and rehabilitation. Policymakers who champion punishment tend to be resistant to initiatives aimed at rehabilitation, despite mounting evidence that prison education programs cut recidivism, reducing prison populations and the expenses associated with locking up repeat offenders.

These obstacles make the grant to the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison especially important, as the support could help the organization shape the national discussion on prison education, as well as disseminate best practices for expanding these programs.